Festive Season Viewing

Two festive season films releasing today in South Africa are: Ben is Back and Mary Poppins Returns. The former is for adults, the latter suitable for the whole family.

Far from sentimental, Ben is Back explores some of the difficulties that this time of year can bring. Ben (Lucas Hedges), a drug addict,

unexpectedly turns up on his family doorstep on Christmas Eve. While his mother, Holly Burns (Julia Roberts), is very happy to see him, it is obvious that Ben’s sister (Ivy – Holly & Ivy …) and stepfather are far from happy to see him. Ben has caused problems for his family on previous Christmases. After a heated debate the family agree that Ben can stay for just 24 hours – but only if he remains under his mother’s watchful eye for every minute. Thereafter he must return to rehab.

What could go wrong? Predictably, everything does go wrong after Ben goes out in public and has a run-in with former druggy friends. During the fraught 24-hour period that follows viewers get to see the really grim aspects that go with drug addiction: guilt, desperation, crime, lying, remorse, weakness, drug dealing, family love and pain, and even death. The final scene of the film gives a double meaning to the film’s title ‘Ben is Back’. The acting is good. Julia Roberts is especially believable as the loving, tough mother, prepared at once to distrust and to believe in her son. A very good, if sobering ‘Christmas’ film.

Mary Poppins Returns – although not specifically about Christmas – is nevertheless a lovely film that families will enjoy watching during the Christmas holidays. Emily Blunt plays Mary Poppins.

In the original tale based on the book by P L Travers, Mary Poppins arrives unannounced to help the Banks family. In this sequel, Michael and Jane – who were children in the first story – are now grown up, and their parents are dead. Michael is a struggling artist who works in a bank, and is a widower with three children. Jane has followed in her mum’s footsteps and spends her time attending workers’ rights rallies. More than that Michael and Jane seem to have inherited their parents’ absentmindedness and ineptitude. It is the children who are pragmatic and mature. Nevertheless, they are just children and the imminent repossession of their family home is a big problem. It is at this crucial time that Mary Poppins floats down from a gloomy London sky and sings her way into the family. With each song she teaches the children life-empowering lessons and once they have learnt and grown she quietly leaves again.

There is lots of bouncing, flying, floating, adventure, and entry into other worlds. The characters encountered, and the songs Mary Poppins sings, teach the children how to look at things differently, how to use their imaginations, and how not to take things at face value. These life lessons are a little different to the typical Disney message ‘believe in yourself’. They’re more realistic.

Mary Poppins Returns follows very much the same formula as the first Mary Poppins story and may be a little boring in parts to modern viewers. Emily Blunt is just perfect as Mary, though: prim, very self-assured, poised, beautiful and melodious. Mary Poppins Returns is a lovely film with which to end 2018. And the lessons learnt are worth taking into 2019.

Happy viewing this festive season.

Saving Mr Banks deeper than a remake of Mary Poppins

Review by Brenda Daniels

I rushed off to the preview of this film thinking it was a remake of Mary Poppins, an alternative take on this well-loved tale, seen from the viewpoint of Mr Banks, the father character in the original story. Well, it was that and it wasn’t.

On the surface, Saving Mr Banks is the story of how Walt Disney eventually obtained the rights during the 1960s to make P L Travers’ book, Mary Poppins, into the Disney musical starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. Emma Thomson stars as the crusty 60-odd year old Pamela Travers alongside Tom Hanks as Walt Disney.

Travers proves to be a very difficult-to-please woman, and fights with the scriptwriting team at every turn, declaring outright that the film would NOT be a musical nor would there be any animation. Baffled by her demeanour, Disney and his team persist, treating Travers with kindness despite her rancour.

Disney, who had longed to make the film for 20 years, begins to see past the author’s outward resistance to what she really holds dear – the memories of her childhood, and in particular her relationship with her father (finely portrayed by Colin Farrell). And it is this story, woven into the fabric of the book and eventually the Disney film, which forms the underlying one of Saving Mr Banks.

The original Mary Poppins story remains unchanged. Seeing Saving Mr Banks won’t alter that. But attributing elements of the book, and the eventual screenplay to the author’s personal struggle, does give the audience a different view on the story. Saving Mr Banks has depth and sensitivity, is well acted, and gives a plausible explanation for how an author’s personal life can affect her writing.

I loved it.

This British-made film opened at Cinema Nouveau theatres in South Africa on 21 February 2014.

Saving Mr Banks event at Walt Disney studios display picture. Julie Andrews,  Walt Disney and Pamela Travers. (Source: Creative Commons)

Saving Mr Banks event at Walt Disney studios display picture. Julie Andrews, Walt Disney and Pamela Travers. (Source: Creative Commons)